Research has for the first time quantified the volume of plastic from European countries that contributes to ocean littering from exported recycling. Up to 31 per cent of plastic exported for recycling is not recycled at all.
New research from NUI Galway and the University of Limerick has for the first time quantified the volume of plastic from European countries (EU, UK, Switzerland and Norway) that contributes to ocean littering from exported recycling.
While European countries have developed world-leading waste management infrastructure, 46 per cent of European separated plastic waste is exported outside the country of origin. A large share of this plastic is transported thousands of kilometres to countries with poor waste management practices, largely located in Southeast Asia.
Once in these countries, a large share of the waste is rejected from recycling streams into overstretched local waste management systems that have been found to contribute significantly to ocean littering, according to a statement.
The new research, published in the scientific journal Environment International, estimated the best-case, average, and worst-case scenarios of ocean debris pathways from exported recycling in 2017.
The results estimated a range between 32,115 – 180,558 tonnes, or 1 to 7 per cent of all exported European polyethylene, which ended up in the ocean.
Polyethylene is one of the most common types of plastic in Europe, and the results showed that countries such as the UK, Slovenia, and Italy are exporting a higher share of plastic outside of Europe and see a higher share of their recyclable plastic waste end up as ocean debris.
George Bishop, lead author of the study, said: “The results indicate an important and previously undocumented pathway of plastic debris entering the oceans, which will have considerable environmental and social impacts on marine ecosystems and coastal communities.”
The authors caution that these findings should not discourage people to recycle as it remains the best waste management treatment, environmentally speaking. However, there is considerable work to be done to improve aspects of these plastic recycling chains, to reduce the ‘leakage’ of these systems.
Image credit: Susan White/USFWS